As my breathing slowed, and became deeper, my body sank further into the floor, cushioned by a yoga mat, soft wool blankets and feather-filled bolster cushions. The meditative tones of singing bowls filled the yoga shala, an intimate, light filled space with a wooden floor and beamed ceiling. I had been lying there for over five minutes, the gentle weight of the eye pillow helping to make me feel deeply relaxed.
This was my first class at Suryalila Retreat Centre, and it felt great! Kate, the teacher, was guiding us through a calming class of restorative yoga, a technique that uses props like bolster cushions and blankets to support a series of reclining body poses, each of which can be held for maybe five to ten minutes.
The class was a truly calming experience; a precious time to recalibrate my breathing and to unwind. No demanding, acrobatic poses; instead a very gentle introduction to the world of yoga.
Yoga is an increasingly popular worldwide fitness activity, enjoyed among varied walks of life and across generations. Join a gym these days and among the timetable for spinning or cross training, you'll undoubtedly find yoga too. An effective way to balance modern life, by creating more harmony - by way of exercises and poses that strengthen the body, improve and regulate breathing, and calm the mind.
Little wonder it is an integral part of so many wellbeing holidays.
So, if like me, you've not dabbled in yoga, maybe a retreat should be your next break. They are not just for experienced yogis looking to be challenged by talented teachers; but also for novices looking for a modern holiday that combines exercise, relaxation, and nurturing treatments like massage.
After months of confinement it feels like the right time to reboot 2020. So, I prescribed myself a dose of mindfulness, yoga and healthy eating, deep in the Andalusian countryside.
I headed out like a pilgrim on a path to enlightenment, driving two hours west from Malaga to the foothills of the Grazalema mountains. I passed through a patchwork landscape of woodlands, golden cereal crops, and towering sunflowers. Once past the small towns of Prado del Rey and El Bosque, and having taken a dusty farm track, I reached the Suryalila Retreat Centre. Colourful Umbul Umbul flags fluttered in the wind by the entrance of this old olive farmstead, where rural Andalusian architecture has been enlivened with hand-painted wall murals, decorative Asian wood details, and carved stone statues that are evocative of India and Bali.
It certainly looked and felt like a retreat, and as soon as I was greeted by Vidya Heisel, Director of Suryalila, I knew it was a friendly place too. We sat in the shade of an old paper mulberry tree and had lunch together, a feast of local organic vegetarian food.
Three meals a day are prepared by the in-house chefs led by Jemma, together with her colleague Kali. Think seasonal goodies many from the retreat's gardens, like plump breva figs with goat's cheese and honey; roasted vegetables, drizzled with the estate's own organic extra virgin olive oil; mushroom quiche with crispy gluten-free pastry; green salads; scarlet heritage tomatoes; local organic cheeses; and homemade breads and nut crackers. Over lunch I learnt that the retreat's permaculture project is expanding the existing orchard of fig, peach, pear, apricot and pomegranate trees with a new 'food forest' which in the coming years will make the estate self-sufficient in many foods.
Vidya, a British resident in Spain, makes you feel at home straight away. We chatted about travel, wellness, yoga, and the trend towards immune boosting breaks.
She told me, "These days I think many people are becoming more health-conscious and looking for intelligent alternative holidays, from which they return home refreshed and with renewed vigour and energy. They no longer want to come back feeling like they need a holiday to recover from their holiday! I think holidays should be about boosting your immune system, not running it down."
As international borders begin to reopen, the travel industry is seeing the first signs of recovery. The wellness and wellbeing sectors were among the strongest before the health crisis and might be among the first to take new bookings. Over the past decade or so, the emerging trend in wellbeing has consolidated itself into one of the most valued travel markets, where holidays are all about enhancing mental and physical health, learning new skills, and connecting with a destination.
Andalucía is at the forefront of Spain's wellbeing movement; from the semi-arid landscape of Almeria and the brilliance of the Costa de la Luz, to the sparkle of Marbella's coast, there are yoga centres, wellness retreats and wellbeing spas offering day, weekend, and longer retreat getaways.
I really loved the style of Suryalila. The centre hosts frequent group retreats throughout the year, and has an open, inclusive atmosphere ideal for retreat newbies like me. A few days or a long weekend might be enough to disconnect, relax and recharge - providing an introduction to yoga and other wellbeing techniques. By the end of my first afternoon at Suryalila, after a massage and the restorative yoga class, I felt I had been away for days!
Vidya has been teaching yoga, and training teachers, for decades; travelling the world, experiencing myriad retreats and yoga centres - all inspiration for her work here at Suryalila. She told me, "I have always loved yoga, delicious nutritious food and creating beautiful spaces, and fortunately I get to joyfully combine and share these passions under one roof."
Each day starts with an early morning yoga class, led by an expert teacher, trained by Vidya. At 8am I took a Vinyasa 'flow' yoga class in the 'Om' hall, a striking geodesic dome that looks out over the rolling countryside. It was the chance to be introduced to a series of postures and breathing exercises that flowed together. Expert teacher Jo was probably more used to working with experienced retreat regulars but was sensitive to that fact I was a novice, and modified the class and made me feel comfortable.
Then after a hearty breakfast we headed to El Bosque, to hike along the river Majaceite, fed by crystalline water, that had filtered through the Grazalema mountains. As you walk beside the wild river, past mill ruins, one is shaded by aromatic, wild fig trees, and surrounded by the sound of running water and birdsong. There are plenty of opportunities to cool off in the natural pools - it's a paradise.
The day ends with a late afternoon class and an early supper (the organic chocolate pudding was fab), leaving the evening free. Guests could take a cooling swim in the saltwater pool or curl up with a book and mug of lemon verbena tea. Instead I indulged in a glass of chilled Ronda white wine, slumped among decorative Indian mirror cushions, beneath an ornate pagoda - and watched the sunset. Now that's my kind of wellness retreat!